This is my 11th Q&A here at US 17 Coastal Highway – and my 2nd Q&A focused on Florida. As I stated almost two weeks ago, when I posted the interview with Ronald Broome of Florida Native Photography – I’ve neglected Florida to-date, so I’m in a bit of an ‘exploration’ phase with the state. Florida’s Highway 17 Corridor – which runs through some remarkably rich and interesting places – is only matched by the remarkably interesting people who are documenting the changes (both good and bad) in the region.
So, the 11th Q&A is with Bullet of Abandoned Florida. I’ve been enamored with his website for awhile now – the photography is stunning and often stops me in my tracks and catches me off-guard. Decaying relics should make a person feel that way, at least I think so. Bullet is one of a small number of photographers that refer to themselves as urban explorers (you might be interested in the disclaimer on the website) and this is how he describes his work:
Abandoned Florida was created as a database for historic, lost, and abandoned sites and relics in the state of Florida. This website is fueled by the explorations and efforts to document abandoned and forgotten locations by individuals throughout the state, which include myself, Nomeus of Flurbex.com and many more.
We do not condone vandalism and do our part in helping to prevent it. We do not share addresses here unless it is otherwise stated, so please do not ask. For a more detailed explanation, please read our disclaimer.
US 17: First, share a bit about yourself – and how you came to be interested in abandoned and forgotten places.
Abandoned Florida: I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2007, an inflammatory bowel disease. Being as there is no cure, and that it affected my ability to do even simple tasks, I lost interest in things I used to enjoy doing, so I quickly got depressed about my whole situation.
It was 2009 and during this time, I used to visit my brother a lot and we used to watch random, unknown movies some nights, movies we’ve never heard of. One night, he pops in Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness, a documentary about urban exploration. It didn’t really grab my attention until it came to the part where it showed the abandoned rocket down in the Aerojet-Dade facility, and I couldn’t believe that something like that was out there.
I spent the following day researching urban exploration and looking for other abandoned places in Florida, because there has to be more than just that rocket. That’s when I found out about Deep Lake Prison, a small work prison in Big Cypress that closed down in 2002. I didn’t know anyone into urban exploration at the time so I asked a high school friend of mine if he wants to go, and he just shrugged and said why not.
So we went to the store and bought what we thought we needed; boots, camo clothing, a little point-and-shoot, gloves, respirator, pretty ridiculous whenever I think about it. That same weekend, we got in my beat-up Camaro and drove out west to this little prison and spent the day there shooting photos. After we left, I began thinking how cool that was and that there has to be even more places just like it.
I eventually did make it out to Aerojet, but it was at this point that I felt that I had to meet others interested in urbex. I posted on UER, the largest urban exploration forum about who I was, what I explored, etc. I’m not sure how much you know about the Florida urbex community, but it’s VERY protective and I was not welcomed all that well. It didn’t stop me, I just thought, f*** those guys, I’m going to explore on my own then.
I created Abandoned Florida around this time, at the end of 2009. I didn’t understand the whole, keep places a secret mentality at the time but I was also never contacted by anyone in the urbex community about my website.
One evening, I get an email from Robtech, a member from Flurbex.com. He wanted to trade for a spot I had explored, an old water plant in Opa-Locka. I let him have that and he traded me, I didn’t know at the time, a demolished hospital. Finding that out didn’t phase me and I continued exploring, meeting up with people with similar interests.
A few weeks later, I get another email from Robtech asking if I would like to meet up with him and other member of Flurbex to explore a hospital I knew about. I got crazy excited and quickly agreed.
I finally met Robtech and he introduced me to Nomeus, Mogwii, Wingman, and EJ. Even though I wasn’t welcomed months ago, I thought they were really cool people and it changed my perspective on the whole urbex community here in Florida. Nomeus told me how much he enjoyed the website and wanted to help by sharing his experiences and photos, so the website grew from there.
US 17: I’ve been a fan of your website, Abandoned Florida, for a while now – could you tell us when you started this project, and how it’s changed over the years? Do you remember the first image that you posted on the site?
Abandoned Florida: I started this project at the end of 2009, because I felt that history had to be preserved somehow but mostly because I was shunned by the urbex community at the time.
The thing is though is that the site contradicts with one of our philosophies, which is, don’t publicly share information. At first, I didn’t understand this and posted about whatever came my way. The first post on the website was about Nike Missile Site HM-95, a small set of buildings out near the Tamiami Trail that many swore was an insane asylum. I wanted to debunk all the myths and just wanted to post about the facts and it’s relative rich, but lesser known history.
Nowadays, I’m very selective about what I post. I only post about places that are demolished, protected, or beyond saving, with a few exceptions.
US 17: There’s definitely a sensitive nature to many of the places you photograph – unstable buildings, toxic materials, no trespassing signs, etc. Are there many places that you’ve walked away from because of safety concerns? What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Abandoned Florida: We always try to be safe when doing this. There’s lots of things to be concerned about; asbestos, mold, winos, homeless defensing their property, crazy owners, building stability…. the list goes on and on. I’ve walked away from a few places because the risk was much too high compared to what I thought the reward would be; reward has to outweigh the risk.
Having Crohn’s disease causes it’s own set of challenges. I get fatigued faster than most and ‘m in no way a strong person. On multiple occasions, I would feel sick and would start seeing bright lights due to a combination of things, such as lack of water and the Florida heat. Even though I feel terribly awful about it, my friends would always agree to leave for my own safety.
US 17: Do you have a favorite place that you’ve photographed during your explorations? What about a place that you loved – that was later demolished, or perhaps saved from demolition?
Abandoned Florida: I have my most hated places, but as for favorites, I don’t have. Each place is unique in it’s own way, and it’s something we look for when exploring. Sure, I can drive down to Miami right now and find tons of abandoned businesses and retail stores, but that doesn’t interest me. I’m more interested in hospitals, churches, schools, hotels, those sort of things.
I would say though, Leer Tower in Alabama is up there. Built in 1929, it’s a 19-story hotel that closed down in ’83 during to multiple code violations. We simply contacted the owner and after a small deposit, they gave us the key. There was still furniture from the 80s inside as well as the well-known “tv room”, a room full of televisions from the 70s stacked on top of one another; one of the most amazing buildings I’ve been to. I’ve heard the building has switched to a new owner since and doesn’t allow visitors, which is unfortunate.
Another place that I love is the Dixie Walesbilt Hotel in Lake Wales. If you’re serious about urban exploration, then you know about the Hotel Grand, a 10-story hotel opening in 1927, it was ornate both on the exterior and interior and was constructed for the more upscale individuals of society.
I was never able to explore it when it was empty but Nomeus, who I’ve mentioned earlier did. I posted his photos as well as the history I was able to find about it. A few years later, the owner leaves a comment on the page and I thought, well, it wouldn’t hurt to contact him and ask if we can check out the inside. He accepted my offer and we were given a tour of the building and the restoration that has gone into it so far. A pizza place is planned to open there as well as other businesses in the near future.
US 17: I know that you don’t relinquish location information for many (most) of your photographs – but can you share with us some of the places along the Highway 17 Corridor that you have photographed, and a bit about their history?
Abandoned Florida: One of the places I enjoyed seeing in photos and eventually did explore in 2009 was the Strawn Citrus Plant in Deleon Springs, just off of Highway 17.
You can read about the history about it on my website. To give a quick history lesson about it, Theodore Strawn began his orange packing operation in the 1800s, and was one of a few packing houses that was able to continue business after freezes eradicated the orange crops in the state during that time. The current structure was built in 1921 after the original packing house burned down, state-of-the-art for it’s time. Business was great until 1983, when a freeze wiped out the crops and the orange industry moved further south to warmer climates; the packing house closed soon after.
It was added to the Historic Register in 1993 but has been neglected for years. Vandals had scrapped many of the machinary and multiple fires have occurred there throughout the years, especially around 2010-2011, when the internet had become available to most. From what I understand, the buildings have been bought and the land has been cleared. The buildings that can’t be saved will be demolished and the rest will become part of the owner’s business.
US 17: You mention on your website that you might start focusing more on preservation efforts across Florida – how do you see Abandoned Florida evolving in the near future and what changes might your viewers expect to see? Do you have Collaborators?
Abandoned Florida: Come next year, I plan on focusing on preservation efforts across the state and meeting with the people involved, but I will still be featuring abandoned places. Regular viewers and donators can look forward to interviews, more videos and meetups in the near future. I’m still looking for a writer to regularly help with this though.
Many people have been featured on the site, but I haven’t really collaborated with another website or blog, which I plan on changing.
US17: Do you have any shows planned for the near future, any books or seminars planned?
Abandoned Florida: I’ve moved on from the little point-and-shoot and now shoot with a Nikon D7000, always with a Sigma 10-20mm when out exploring. I never took classes or any of that, I’ve just learned as I went.
I plan on working on a book next year using the photos I have taken, but I don’t think it’s the right time to give any details on it yet, but it’s something to look forward to. As I said before, many people have been featured on the website and I like to promote some of them from time to time. Off the top of my head, I can recommend Reclaiming Jacksonville, by Ennis Davis and photography by Nomeus.
US 17: I always have to ask – how much of Highway 17 have you traveled down? Do you have a stretch of Highway 17 that is your favorite – and why?
Abandoned Florida: I’ve traveled down the whole stretch of highway here in Florida. Traveling down highways and state roads has always been a great way to find abandoned locales. My favorite stretch would be between Punta Gorda and Orlando, as there’s so many small towns and industrial structures down that route.
I’d like to add that if you wish to start urban exploring, or have interest in it, feel free to visit Flurbex.com, a forum dedicated to exploring Florida where we share photos and answer most questions that you need help with.
I’d like to thank Bullet for agreeing to this interview with US 17, and for sharing some of his photographs with us. Please check out his work at Abandoned Florida and on Facebook – his images are fascinating, as are the places he photographs. I know that I will be keeping up with his increased preservation efforts in the future – I’m all for that.